Thursday, January 20, 2011

UC wants all student applications read by a person

The Sacramento Bee

Published Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011

In this era of online dating and computerized banking, the University of California is rolling back the clock – encouraging its campuses to have people, not computers, read applications from the tens of thousands of students who try each year to get in.

UC's governing board of regents took the first step Wednesday toward refining a 10-year-old admissions policy known as "comprehensive review." They're expected to finalize approval today of a resolution that calls on all campuses to review applications the same way UC Berkeley and UCLA do: using a person.

Other UC campuses, all less selective than Berkeley and UCLA, now use computers to screen applications, admitting some students automatically based on the computer review and others after a person has read their application. But those schools are getting more competitive because more students are applying to UC at the same time the university is reducing enrollment to absorb budget cuts.

As it grows harder to get in, UC officials argue, people will make better decisions than computers. The regents' resolution calls for all UC campuses to use a process called "holistic review," in which a human reader evaluates applications in the larger context of students' lives.

The approach takes into account, for example, not just how many Advanced Placement classes a student takes, but how many are offered at his high school. And it factors in things like whether a student is working while going to school.

"We don't have any expectation that it will markedly change our student body," said UC Provost Lawrence H. Pitts. "What we're trying to do is be as sure as we can that we're not missing some students that some of our campuses inadvertently overlook."

The policy change comes days after UC announced that a record number of students – 142,235 – applied for admission this fall, and the same day regents discussed the possibility of tightening enrollment even further in response to Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal.

The shift is part of a larger discussion taking place in admissions offices around the country about how to balance the education mission of college campuses with what's become a tensely competitive admissions process.

Jerome Lucido, director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California, is organizing a conference on the subject later this month. He supported UC's policy change but said it can be tricky to explain.

"In moving to holistic review the decisions become somewhat murkier for a while. It's less easy to predict who will get in," Lucido said. "But, frankly, I think it's a better way to do college admissions."

The new method of reviewing applications will be phased in over a number of years and is not supposed to impact students who applied this year. But for younger high school students eyeing UC, the more human approach to reviewing applications means that getting into UC will be even harder to predict.

"It's more of a mystery," said Christine Brownfield, a counselor at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento. "If it's more personalized or more individualized, it's harder to decipher what they're doing."

During Wednesday's meeting, Regents Norman Pattiz and George Marcus criticized the more subjective approach to admissions.

"How do you explain to a student and a parent, early on in the process, what it's going to take to get in to the University of California?" Pattiz said.

Marcus said he worried about "the family that has been playing by what they consider the rules, and they don't find that subjectivity in their favor."

But students, professors and UC President Mark Yudof spoke in favor of the switch, saying it's the same process used by some of the nation's most elite colleges, including private Ivy League schools.

"It's fair," said Jesse Chang, a UC Irvine student who is the regents' student representative. "Every applicant wants to know their application was read by a human being at least once."

UC Davis uses a computer algorithm to admit the top 30 percent of applicants and has admissions staffers read the rest of the applications, said associate vice chancellor Lora Bossio.

She welcomed the policy change, saying that as Davis has grown more selective in recent years, its admissions procedure must evolve.

"Selective campuses need to do different things than a nonselective campus might," Bossio said.

Hiring more people to read applications will cost money, although UC didn't provide an estimate of how much. It was a marked omission in the discussion, coming the same day regents talked about the $500 million cut proposed in Brown's 2011-12 budget.

Yudof said the long-term decline in state funding is causing UC to cut enrollment and predicted the trend would continue.

"Our chancellors project that with adequate funding the university could enroll an additional 20,000 to 30,000 qualified students – in this decade alone. This is what we should be doing," Yudof said.

"But the level of state support has dropped to the point where we do not have the classrooms, professors and student services personnel to match that noble vision."

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